Athing Mu to Race 800m at Saturday’s NYC Grand Prix — Her First Race in 11 Months

World and Olympic 800-meter champion Athing Mu is set to race for the first time in 11 months as meet organizers announced today that she will run the 800 meters at Saturday’s USATF NYC Grand Prix at Icahn Stadium. Mu will face a field consisting solely of American competition, including reigning World Indoor champion Ajee’ Wilson, last year’s Diamond League final third placer Sage Hurta-Klecker, and 2022 US indoor 1500 champion Heather MacLean. Full start list here.

Kevin Morris photo

A lot has changed for Mu since her last race — the World Championship 800m final on July 24, 2022, where she held off Great Britain’s Keely Hodgkinson to win, 1:56.30 to 1:56.38, in one of the races of the year. Since then, Mu moved from College Station, Tex., to Los Angeles, switching coaches from Milton Mallard, the Texas A&M assistant who guided her to Olympic and World titles, to Bobby Kersee, a legendary sprint coach with limited experience in the middle distances. She also changed agencies, switching from Wes Felix to Alliance Sports, an agency primarily focused on NFL players (Mu and her boyfriend Brandon Miller, who made last year’s US World Championship team in the 800, are the only runners Alliance Sports represents).

Mu revealed on the Pivot Podcast in March that she was hurt at the 2022 Worlds, which is likely why she ended her season in July rather than continuing to compete in Europe. She has been close to competing multiple times in 2023. In February, Mu was considering running the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix and was announced as part of the field at the Millrose Games but withdrew from both, later saying on the Pivot Podcast that she had not had enough time to adjust to Kersee’s training.

Mu was expected to run the LA Grand Prix on May 27, a meet Kersee helped promote (though she was never officially announced as competing), but Kersee said she did not run after getting COVID two weeks before the meet. A week later, Mu’s name appeared on the start list for the 1500m at the Music City Track Carnival in Nashville, where she was cheering on Miller as a spectator. Mu was asked about it on the Peacock broadcast and said she had no idea that was the case (the American Track League’s Paul Doyle later explained Mu never entered the meet but “Someone decided to put her on the startlist in case she decided last minute that she wanted to run.”)

On Saturday, 11 months to the day since her last race, Mu’s competition drought should finally come to an end. With a national audience watching on NBC (the meet is from 1-3 p.m. ET with Mu’s race at 1:23), the track world will be eager to see how Mu opens her 2023 season. A few thoughts on her debut:

Quick Take: What kind of shape is Athing Mu in?

Athing Mu has run 13 finals as a professional and has failed to win just one of those races — last year’s Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games, where she dropped out with a lap to run. She has never lost an 800-meter final as a professional, though she has only run seven of them since turning pro in June 2021. Mu, who turned 21 on June 8, is used to winning, and when you have accomplished as much as Mu at such a young age — NCAA titles, NCAA records, American records, world and Olympic titles — there is an expectation, internal and external, that Mu will win every 800-meter race she enters.

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That’s not necessarily a fair expectation — even the best athletes lose now and again, especially when there’s another insanely talented athlete in your event (as there is with Keely Hodgkinson in the women’s 800). But it may explain why Mu, whose Nike contract is large enough that she does not need to chase prize money or appearance fees, has been so selective with her races.

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Think about it from Mu’s perspective. She signs up for 2023 Millrose, and though she’s probably in good shape, she’s not right where she wants to be. If she runs and wins, well, everyone expected her to do that. If she runs and loses, it’s a huge story and a blow to her confidence. There’s something to be said for learning how to handle failure — something Mu did not manage well at Millrose in 2022 — but from Mu’s perspective, the risk/reward ratio from competing at anything less than her best is skewed toward risk.

And Kersee, as we’ve seen with his other superstar, Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, does not like racing his athletes in their main events until they are ready to succeed. So the fact that Mu is racing at all in New York shows she and Kersee must think she is in decent shape.

Still, there are some questions, namely: how has Mu adapted to the training of Kersee, a sprint/hurdle expert suddenly tasked with training the world’s top 800m runner? Especially since Kersee has been talking about improving Mu’s 1500 ability and having her race that distance (including, potentially, at next year’s Olympics) when the rest of the world sees Mu as a 400/800 runner.

Mu is one of the most talented women ever to race the 800 meters and has not lost an 800 since high school, so she will enter Saturday’s race as the favorite. But Ajee’ Wilson is a smart, veteran racer and pushed Mu all the way to the line at USAs last year. She’s also fit — Wilson ran 1:58.16 in Paris two weeks ago, #2 in the world this year. Hurta-Klecker, also running in New York, was 7th in that race in 1:59.01. Mu doesn’t have to be at her best to win, but she has to be in pretty good shape.

June 24 is late to debut in a season and Keely Hodgkinson has already run 1:55.77 this year. Mu has eight weeks until Worlds, and because she has the bye as defending champ, she doesn’t have to worry about being ready for USAs. But if Saturday’s race reveals a big gap between Hodgkinson and Mu, eight weeks is not a ton of time to close it.

Quick Take: Wait, what happened to the 1500?

Last month, Bobby Kersee told the Orange County Register that his plan was for Athing Mu to run the 1500 at USAs (July 6-9 in Eugene). He also said Mu would open her season at the NYC Grand Prix this weekend. Many observers put 2+2 together and assumed she would run the 1500 in New York considering the qualifying window for USAs closes on Sunday and Mu has not run a 1500 within the window, much less under the qualifying standard of 4:05.00.

Yet Mu is running the 800 instead in New York (there no longer is a women’s 1500 on the schedule). What does that mean? Can Mu even run the 1500 at USAs without a qualifying mark?

I asked USATF Chief Communications officer Aarti Parekh if Mu’s status as reigning world champion in the 800 would grant her entry to the 1500 if she wanted it. This is the response I received:

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images for World Athletics)

“The automatic entry provision [into USAs for medallists at Worlds] in Rule 8 of USATF’s Competition Rules only applies to the same event in which you earn qualification, so Athing’s World Champion status in the 800m applies to the 800m at the Championship. Qualification for 2023 USATF Outdoor Championships ends on June 25 and acceptances for non-qualified athletes is at the discretion of the Sports Committee Chair.”

The final line, “discretion of the Sports Committee Chair” — in this case, Rose Monday — grants USATF enough wiggle room to accept Mu in the 1500, even though her last 1500 was in April 2021 and her pb is just 4:16. Remember, USATF has accepted unqualified athletes before. USATF let Adam Goucher into the 10,000 at the 2008 Olympic Trials, let Chris Derrick into the 10,000 at the 2016 Olympic Trials, and let Drew Hunter into the two-mile at 2019 USA Indoors (a race he wound up winning).

In this situation, it’s a no-brainer. If Mu wants to run the 1500 at USAs, just expand the field by one and add her in. It’s a more exciting event that way and it’s not as if Mu is some borderline case who would not be in the meet otherwise.

All that said, one has to wonder if all of Kersee’s talk about making Mu a better 1500 runner and possibly doubling at the 2024 Olympics is a bunch of hot air. If he were serious about having Mu succeed in the 1500, wouldn’t it make sense to run the event at least once before USAs? Maybe Kersee watched Faith Kipyegon run 3:49 in Florence and realized the 800/1500 double in Paris is a pipe dream.

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Discussion: Breaking: Athing Mu WILL Debut in NYC After All, but in the 800m!

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